"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

We Need a Just War Theory for Domestic Politics

Collin Slowey was a 2020-2021 Young Scholar Awards Program recipient. He is a graduate of Baylor University.

Domestic politics in the United States have become increasingly warlike. The American public exhibits stark divisions and widespread rancor, and perhaps most tellingly, the metaphor of war is almost omnipresent. Whether through our enlistment in the “war” on the coronavirus or our engagement in the “culture war,” we are a country of battle-hardened veterans.

If we approach politics from an agonistic perspective without understanding the ethical perils that accompany war-making, we place ourselves in a dangerous position. To quote James Childress: “In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war. Among other lapses, we forget important moral limits in war––both limited objectives and limited means … [as well as] such constraints as right intention, discrimination, and proportionality, which protect the humanity of all parties in war.” Operating in this way can easily result in moral violations for the sake of political success. Whether we realize it or not, many Americans today are in danger of committing such violations.

To remedy this problem, we need to reason analogically from the just war tradition to something like a just war theory for domestic politics, creating as best we can a framework of ethical restraints through which to view our present culture wars and political battles. Exactly what such a framework would prescribe and prohibit is up for debate. Nevertheless, it is possible to make some general claims.

For one, the just war tradition dictates that war should only be declared in response to an egregious wrong on the part of another moral actor. Applying this requirement to domestic politics would cast doubt on the practice, now commonplace in the United States, of declaring war on inanimate objects and abstract concepts, such as poverty or drugs or the coronavirus. From the perspective of the just war tradition, waging war against something with no moral agency is impossible—that is simply not what war is.

The tradition also relegates declaring war to the position of a last resort, acceptable only if it is the best of all remaining options. In today’s polarized politics, it is easy to forget that there are other ways to resolve conflict than moving to war footing. Alternatives, including deliberation, compromise, and federalism, do exist. As citizens, we should seriously consider these options (and others like them) before falling back on power politics and coercion.

Another important tenet of just war theory states that a war, otherwise just in every way, can be rendered unjust if its participants are motivated by hatred, greed, and the like, rather than a dispassionate desire to advance good and restrain evil. In domestic politics, we know––through reflection and introspection––when we cross the line from right intention to evil intention. When that happens, we should recognize that we have violated the moral norms of the just war tradition and do our best to exorcise the selfish and impure motivations possessing us.

Just war thinkers also agree that warriors must act with prudence. They believe an affronted party should not initiate combat if it is unlikely to produce good outcomes. This may sound self-evident, but many of today’s political warriors are doing just that. Consider the culture war: progressives and conservatives alike have settled on the strategy of gaining power in the White House and then using executive orders to rewrite controversial policies and enact new ones. This is an effective approach in the short term, since it bypasses the other party’s opposition in Congress, but it is unlikely to produce any lasting change. Because the parties are roughly equal in numbers, the next president is likely to be from the other side, in which case he or she can immediately undo the previous administration’s changes. Political actors need to think carefully about whether they are exercising their power constructively for a lasting goal, or if their war-making is doomed to failure and therefore purely destructive.

Finally, the just war tradition mandates proportionality. In other words, actions taken during war must be fully warranted by offenses incurred. We live in an age of heightened sensitivity to politics, when the slightest provocation can result in enormous outrage and retaliatory measures, including boycotting and societal “cancellation.” In such an age, it is important to recall the ancient wisdom of the just war tradition: not all wrongs merit an openly hostile response.

These ethical prescriptions constitute important and timely discoveries. As American politics become more warlike, and therefore more ethically perilous, we need moral guidelines to help us navigate the public square. The just war tradition is the best resource available for developing such guidelines. It is already ingrained in the American philosophical heritage, as well as military and international law. Moreover, it is readily applicable to the domestic sphere. It is true that just war thinking condemns much that is commonplace in today’s politics and public discourse, while also placing strict limits on that which it does not explicitly censure. But it is a valuable tool nonetheless, and one that can help political actors to abide by the dictates of morality.